I swirl the coffee around in my mouth as I struggle to gather my words. The glass panels of the front door have darkened, but the rain keeps drumming on the windows. The tinny speakers over the counter are playing a melancholic guitar riff dampened by the murmur of conversations, which makes the song sound like someone is practicing in a lonely corner.
Jacqueline takes a sip of her mimosa. As her tongue glides across her plump lower lip, I dare to speak.
“These days my dream job is to die in a traffic accident. My corpse will rot in a ditch until someone finds my decomposing remains and wonders why my clothes are torn and my face is swollen. Through my driver’s license they’ll learn my name and address. Once they find my family, they’ll call them and tell them what a terrible person they raised. The insurance company will send my parents a letter stating that the damages were deemed unrepairable because the body is so badly mangled that nothing remains of my breasts or my vagina.”
Jacqueline tilts her head and narrows her eyes at me, but when she smacks her lips, another flood of words runs off my tongue.
“When I was three years old, my mother evicted my alcoholic father. He refused to accept defeat, so he broke into his former home and kidnapped both me and my infant sister. Then my father drunk-drove us off a cliff into a lake. My sister was rescued, but I drowned to death. With every rising swell of water, my hair and clothes floated around my waterlogged corpse from which my soul had escaped. My eyes were closed tightly shut, my hands crossed over my chest, my mouth frozen open, and bubbles of blood were stuck at the tip of my protruding tongue. But somehow I ended up uploading my unbodied consciousness into the mainframe of a machine, that now contains my mind and memories. I’ve become ones and zeroes as part of this giant network of ghosts trapped in machines. There’s no one to talk to other than a robotic nurse and a sadistic programmer who intends to involve me in his VR porn scenarios. As for my father, well, no one knows where my father is, but everyone assumes that he’s rotting away somewhere with nothing but worms crawling around in his skull for company.”
Jacqueline runs her fingers through the length of her raven black hair, as if to calm herself down from the storm of emotion she must be feeling at the prospect of becoming insane like myself.
“I thought your father was supposed to be in the car with you and your baby sister,” she says quietly. “Whatever disaster totalled your car, as you put it, must have done a number on you, sweetie. But I’m glad you are opening up about it. You need a shoulder for your troubles and comfort for your fears, right?”
My heart beats faster with guilt and self-reproach. I swallow my bitter bile and vomit-like thoughts back inside my gut.
Jacqueline’s hand rests on mine and holds it. When she lets go, she smiles at me with those piercing cobalt blue eyes of hers.
“Leire, have you ever been with anyone? Like with a guy in a romantic sense?”
This whole time, Jacqueline believed I was a virgin?! I must dispel this notion immediately.
“Of course I’ve been in relationships before! For example, my latest ex is in prison after he was found guilty of having sex with my corpse during a night of heavy drinking.”
Jacqueline chuckles as she traces the rim of her glass with her index finger.
“I can see how that would put you off relationships for a while.”
I rub my eyes. My heart is beating fast. I fear that I’m widening the chasm between us. Maybe Jacqueline has ceased to appreciate my presence, my stories or even my existence anymore.
“W-what, do I seem as if I have never dated anyone?” I ask cautiously.
“You always gave me the impression that people make you uncomfortable,” Jacqueline says with concern as she rests her cheek on her hand, “that you deal with human beings because you don’t have a choice, and you hope to be left alone soon. You can’t keep up with the world and its changes; you can only watch everything from afar like a bird that sits on a window sill. You prefer computers because they aren’t attached to you emotionally, and won’t judge you for anything you might say or do wrong, right? Such a personality sounds unsuitable for romance. Why are you here tonight, sweetie, instead of sitting at home and thinking about how much you want to be free from the world’s expectations and demands?”
My cheeks burn. Is Jacqueline, in her saintly patience, trying to make me realize the mistake of having invited her out on a date? I drink my latte as a thunderclap rattles the windows of the pub. The dim light bulbs flicker.
“I dated a few guys, long ago,” I mutter, then I clear my throat. “And I learned from those experiences what I would learn from placing my hand on a hot stove: I ended up burned badly and with an awful smell permeating my flesh. Also, that when I close my hand around a man’s hard penis, the sensation can trigger a fire alarm because erections can heat up and cook a woman’s soft tissue. In any case, it took two more tries for stupid old me to learn my lesson. I doubt I’m built for human relationships.”
What the hell am I saying?! Am I not trying to date Jacqueline?! Maybe my own subconscious has realized that I have embarked on a suicidal quest and is urging me to relent.
Jacqueline offers me a lovely smile. And those cobalt blues of hers from up close make me want to weep, throw my arms around her slender neck and bury my face in her raven black hair to beg for forgiveness.
“Sweetie, I get why you feel like that about romantic relationships,” she says.
How would she, when she likely gets fucked by four or five guys every week?
Jacqueline’s gaze darts around. She shifts her weight in the stool and lifts the slice of orange from the rim of her glass. She tears off the juice vesicles with her teeth, then she leaves the rind on the table. Her eyes light up suddenly, and she shoots me a mischievous glance as she swallows.
“Besides, who needs to deal face to face with people when you can always play with yourself on the phone, isn’t that right?”
I did call Jacqueline yesterday while I was diddling myself on my bed. I guess I deserve the many references to that choice she’ll be throwing at me from now on. I sigh heavily.
“To be honest, I sometimes fear that I will vanish from existence due to a stroke caused by excessive masturbation.”
We’re silent for long seconds as the rain pours down outside. A gloomy feeling has descended upon us, threatening to engulf me. I’ll have to slog my way back home in that downpour. I wish the owners of this pub would let me sleep in a corner.
“I… masturbate so much because I need to feel good at least for a few seconds, and I’m too lazy to figure out which of the drugs out there would suit my needs best. Also, I’ve sought solace in self-pleasure whenever I faced a dreadful problem or I was drowning in anxiety, and I become increasingly anxious from the moment I leave my apartment, so…”
“I get it, sweetie. Taking care of yourself feels great.”
“I-it’s this garbage job of ours and the stress and monotony it inflicts on our lives. My waking hours are spent staring at computer screens. Even when I refuse to work overtime, I waste my free time between exhaustion and worry about the tasks I’ve yet to finish, because tomorrow looms over us like a monster waiting to devour us. When I look in the mirror after playing with my clit, I see nothing but darkness. I’m an aging spider caught in its own webby tangles.”
Jacqueline pats me lightly on the back of my dress. I’m used to wearing hoodies over T-shirts, so her touch lingers on my skin.
“As far as I’m concerned, you are a tiny little baby. You are talking to a forty-four-year-old lady, remember? I always hoped that someone would have invented a way to remain young forever. But no matter what I can do, I will grow old and die eventually.”
I clutch my glass as I straighten my back. I’m tasting my coworker’s bitterness for the first time, and it feels like home.
“Let me tell you, Jacqueline: you can easily pass for thirty.”
Jacqueline snorts, then sips her mimosa.
“You’re right. I can pass for much younger if I want to. But my mind remains that of an old, single lady who has spent years on self discovery to find happiness through romance, gaining painful lessons along the way.”
“Oh no, I won’t let you call yourself single when you get fucked by ten men every week. You’ve likely made love to half of Spain’s population without getting bored with their body types and tastes. So that’s an insult to those of us who have to diddle ourselves in odd places while a horse stares at us.”
Jacqueline laughs softly, her shoulders tremble. It warms my heart. Before I figure out how to cause such an exquisite sound again, she twirls one end of her raven black hair between her fingers as she addresses me.
“What’s with you and horses? But Leire, I’ve wanted to tell you for a while, because it pains me to see you miserable: life is beautiful and worth living if you don’t think hard about anything. Regardless of your capacity for happiness, just let yourself enjoy what you love.”
Jacqueline relies on clichés, like the majority of the flesh and bone robots that populate this world. I need her to be unique, so maybe I let myself be deceived by yet another delusion. My hand trembles as I reach for my glass, which I’m tempted to empty out, as the latte has gotten cold.
“I’m alive, so like most people I’ve heard the notion that one should stop thinking and just be happy,” I say hoarsely. “Is that truly applicable to anyone? My brain thinks by itself constantly. I snap out of a daydream I didn’t choose to fall into, only to realize I was supposed to pay attention to the pavement and the traffic lights, or to the code I have to program, or even to the road as I’m driving. Such daydreams, or waking nightmares, often force me to confront everything that has gone wrong in my life.”
Someone’s footsteps approach me from behind, which startles me. A college-age girl with long blond hair passes by our table. She eyes us with curiosity, then disappears behind the brick pillar. I had forgotten that a mixed group has occupied the nearby table, which robs Jacqueline and I of our privacy.
“We can try to believe that happiness will be possible for us,” Jacqueline says carefully.
“I guess I’d rather be miserable in truth that happy in deceit.”
“If we can’t convince ourselves, at least we can hope that someone will help us along the path that leads to happiness.”
Why am I getting annoyed? This lovely woman whose attention and embrace I crave is trying to improve my mood, yet I feel like shooting her down with a thousand barbed words. I rub my eyes and take a deep breath.
“So you’ve been feeling bad because you had to deal with my miserable self at the office. Jacqueline… I appreciate that you were looking out for me although you felt like you couldn’t approach me. I guess I scare off most people.”
When I dare to lift my gaze at Jacqueline’s face, she gifts me a sad little smile. I’m tempted to brush one of her locks behind her ear, but I don’t deserve to initiate contact with anyone.
“Also… I doubt I’ll ever forget how you held me in the bathroom when I broke down and wanted to die.” I shiver, then I look down into my glass. “But if you expect me to ever be happy, you might as well wish upon a star for it to land in my lap. Another shooting star, a shining silver fragment, already pierced my eye back when I was a baby, punching a tiny hole that turned everything murky and miserable.”
We remain silent. Jacqueline tilts her glass to drink her mimosa, and when she sets the glass down, her gaze is unfocused. I would have never expected Jacqueline to look deflated. I want to scoot closer and nuzzle up to her. I can only properly connect with people when they become so depressed that they wish they hadn’t been born. If I have to drag them down to that level, then so be it.
“Life sucks ass for everyone except robots and psychopaths,” I say in a thin voice that sounds as hollow as my head has become, “and merely looking around whenever you leave the safety of your home will tell you that soon enough this society will come crashing down into dust, along with many others. We’re forced to engage in a barbarian struggle for survival in a hostile world filled with hungry monsters that wait at our doorsteps to gobble us all up, and we’re not special in any way other than living brief lives filled with suffering, sickness and death.”
I picture a future when Jacqueline wanders around a desolate landscape, trying desperately to keep herself sane while a crazed lunatic rants at her from a distance. Maybe once a robot has eaten the last horse whole, there won’t be a thing left in this world but a few people with broken brains wandering about aimlessly until they finally starve to death, like lost children abandoned by a cruel parent in the wilderness.
The college-age blonde from earlier emerges from behind the pillar, which startles me. I avert my gaze. Her blurry legs pass us by as she trails the smell of soap. She must have done something nasty to her vagina to have cleaned herself so thoroughly.
I wipe the sweat from my brow. I riled myself up with my speech, so I continue.
“But I already ceased to care about this world long ago, when I faced that I should have never been born in it. Also, we are ruled by machines that control our minds through technology so complex it’s impossible for us to comprehend. What scares me these days is that my mental faculties may fail me and I’ll get trapped inside my own mind for the rest of my life. I refuse to imagine the monster I’ll become once I lose the ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Unfortunately… Let’s say that nowadays I feel close to crossing that red line.”
Jacqueline has furrowed her brow as she studies my expression.
“What do you mean, Leire?”
My heartbeat echoes loud throughout my skull. I gulp nervously. Why did I bring it up? Do I believe that Jacqueline would understand, or at least comfort me?
“I… might be losing my mind. That’s the clearest way I can put it. Some vital part of my brain must have gotten scrambled. Also, I lied to you, about my car I mean, when I suggested that I had an accident. I nearly killed myself in it. Before I could realize it, I was veering into oncoming traffic. I guess… I truly wanted to die. I even convinced myself that my old Renault Laguna was driving itself! This must be the onset of some kind of dementia, or one of those diseases of the brain that nobody wants to learn about unless they affect a family member or themselves.”
Jacqueline’s eyelids quiver. She grabs my left hand, squeezes it gently and keeps holding it. My heart flutters.
“Don’t worry,” she says soothingly. “When you told me about your accident, I feared you may have done it on purpose. I’m glad that you stopped yourself. You must want to live at least that much. But look at the bright side: I’ll get to drive you around from now on.”
The sparkle in Jacqueline’s eyes advertises how much she has grown to care for me. I hang my head low to avert my gaze as she rubs my left palm with her thumb. What have I done for someone like her to care for a rotten bitch like me?
“Whenever I look back to figure out where I went wrong, it feels as if I was broken from the beginning. Every day is a struggle to achieve what comes easily for others. And why struggle at all? You can’t expect a broken thing to ever stand straight, can you? I’ve done little else than stumble along as I hold the broken pieces of myself, which constantly threaten to slip my grip. And let me tell you, I’m fucking sick of holding everything together.”
Jacqueline’s fingers caress my knuckles, but she remains silent like a mother allowing her child’s tantrum to subside. I take a deep breath and exhale slowly as I try to calm my racing pulse.
“I feel like we understand each other much more, Jacqueline,” I say gratefully. “Below that gorgeous, seductive facade of yours, you are a barren middle-aged woman with a few remaining years of romance to squeeze out of life.”
Once I finish that sentence, my blood freezes as if my heart was pumping icy water. Jacqueline’s hand is closed around mine, but has become inert. A sepulchral silence buries us as I listen for any change in Jacqueline’s breathing, until she smacks her lips.
“I’ve always wanted a family,” she says hoarsely.
The hurt in her voice must have cracked some dam behind my eyes, because they fill with tears that drip on my right palm as I lift it to cover my eyes. Jacqueline drapes her arm around my neck and pulls me closer. She rests her chin on my scalp.
“C’mon, there’s no need to cry about that,” she whispers gently.
My ragged breaths inhale Jacqueline’s perfume mixed with the musky aroma of the sweat between her breasts. The tears roll from the corners of my eyes and dribble onto my bare knees.
“I knew those words would hurt you,” I mumble. “That’s why they came out of my mouth. I’m suffering all the time, so I need others to suffer as well. I’m a rotting, diseased rat who should be stomped on and thrown into a landfill. I have nothing good to offer to this miserable world.”
Jacqueline swivels on her stool towards me and she embraces me properly, burying my face in her warm neck, squeezing her tits against my shoulder blades, as she wraps her arms around my torso. Her hair brushes my skin with a light caress as it settles on my shoulders. The shock paralyzes me until a relief builds up in my depths. The pressure I had been containing escapes through my mouth like air leaving an untied balloon, and my heartbeat slows down until it matches Jacqueline’s rhythm.
She slides a hand under my hair to stroke my nape. I hug her back. I feel the intricate texture of her lace dress on my fingertips, as well as the cold chain of its zipper running up her spine.
“What I’m about to tell you,” Jacqueline whispers near my left ear, “I haven’t shared with another human being in a long time. Back when I was eighteen, I believed I was in love with a much older, married man. He took my virginity and treated me like a treasure. In just a couple of months, he got me pregnant. Even at my young age, all I wanted was a big family and to be a good mom, so I intended to give birth to this baby. You can figure out how that man reacted to my decision, right? He convinced me that we should wait a year or two, that he’d figure out how to divorce his wife without getting fleeced. I wanted to keep that man as well, and he’d resent our child if I went ahead with the pregnancy, so I opted for an abortion. I never recovered from my decision, in more ways than one. Something precious had died inside me, although I didn’t want it to die. I was a wreck. Back at my parents’, for a few days I did little else than lie in bed and cry. I felt ill, but why wouldn’t I? I could have created something beautiful. I was actually sick, though, in physical pain. A foul smell was coming out of me. When I went to the doctor, it was too late. I had developed an infection that spread to my ovaries. They treated me for a couple of weeks, but the tests revealed that my tubes were… scarred. I was one of those unlucky cases in which the damage makes you infertile. I have forgotten the weeks that followed, but I think that I cracked. For years I couldn’t care about anything. When I thought about spending my whole life unable to make my one dream come true, I needed to scream and break anything. My parents gave up on me, and I don’t blame them. From then on I figured that if I wouldn’t get out of life what I had always yearned for, I would have as much fun as I could. If anyone got too clingy, I moved on to someone else. After all, what was the point of settling down with someone if I would never have a family of my own?”
I’m stumped. The muscles around my heart have tightened painfully. I feel a person inside the warm frame that’s holding me in her arms, as if her consciousness was kicking through the bones and flesh.
When Jacqueline pulls away from the embrace, I want to complain until she locks her arms behind my back again. The sadness that lingers in Jacqueline’s eyes reminds me of an abandoned house on a winter’s day.
“You… always seemed like you were enjoying yourself,” I mumble.
She rests her forehead on mine as she sighs deeply, warming my lips with her breath.
“Oh, it’s been a rollercoaster. But I’ve always needed something else.”